As Keith Stuart notes in The Guardian, “It’s been three years since The Chinese Room, a tiny studio currently working out of a modest office building in Brighton, started work on . Back then, co-founder Dan Pinchbeck had the idea of creating a game about the end of the world, but from a very different perspective than titles like Fallout and Last of Us, with their grand visions of ruined American cities. Influenced by science fiction writers John Wyndham and John Christopher, he and his team became interested in the idea of what Brian Aldiss once called the ‘cosy catastrophe’ – a resolutely British idea of the apocalypse, containing very little violence or explosive trauma, experienced by small communities rather than mass populations.
‘We talked about it, and we said, well, what is the important thing about the end of the world?’ says Pinchbeck. ‘It’s not about cities being consumed in fire. Take the movie 2012 – the whole of California vanishes and you don’t feel a thing, it’s just ridiculous. The apocalypse is about people, and the connections between them. What’s really touching is parents waiting for their kids to come home – and what they’re worried about is that the buses aren’t running, not that the world is ending. It’s the little moments that get you.’
The game presents a fictitious Shropshire village named Yaughton which is rendered in quite staggering physical detail, using Crytek’s Cryengine technology. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, then, takes place in a small valley in Shropshire in the summer of 1984. Viewed from the first-person perspective, the player is simply dropped at the outskirts of the village, with no instructions and no idea about what’s happened. From here, you are free to explore the environment, investigating empty houses, shops and barns, looking for clues. There are notes to read, radio recordings to listen to and computer screens to study. The first thing you interact with is a Commodore 64, its flickering monitor showing weird footage and repeating some sort of code, like a numbers station.
It is, in some ways, a natural evolution of the sub-genre that Chinese Room helped found with its debut game Dear Esther, a hugely atmospheric mystery set on a remote Hebridean island. The style came to prominence in 2013 with the title Gone Home, about a woman returning to her family home and finding it deserted. Often termed ‘notgames’ or ‘walking simulators’, these narrative adventures eschew familiar ludic elements like fighting and level progression, instead providing a single location and a set of environmental clues with which to uncover the story.
The genre has proved weirdly controversial, prompting angry dismissals from some gamers, who even question whether titles like Gone Home and Dear Esther are games at all. The Chinese Room team aren’t worried. ‘There’s a long tradition in games, of sections where not much happens. I think the best part of the whole Dead Space trilogy is the return to the Ishimura where you spend 45 minutes just thinking: “OK, when’s it going to happen?” That’s the scariest part.’”
You can read much more on the end of the world – and the end of people – in Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s recent book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and The Culture of the Apocalypse; a fascinating look at the whole concept of de-peopled spaces, and how it’s so hard for us to imagine a world without us – something that will someday surely happen. Foster’s book, and this game, both share a common concept; the visualization of a world in which human agency no longer exists.